Some people lead lives, and some people lead lives. At 86, Cuban pianist Pepesito Reyes has led one that most humans would die for, and he’s got the stories to prove it. Given the chance, he’ll tell them all, too, even if he has to fight the ebb and flow of static-plagued trans-Atlantic phone lines to do it. From his home base of the last 20 years, Palma Soriano, one can almost sense the glint in Reyes’ eyes as he recalls his remarkable life.
For starters, he’s played with some of the most universally renowned musicians of the past century, from Cuban institutions like Arsenio Rodriguez and Beny Moré to tango master Astor Piazzolla and jazz/soft-shoe meister Nat “King” Cole.
“I fell in love with the piano when I was a kid,” Reyes says. “But in those days, only women would play it, so my father was opposed to me learning it. He used to tell me it was an instrument for ‘patos’ (homosexuals). In fact, he used to think I was a ‘pato.’ In school, I used to put my fingers on the desk pretending to play. I did it for two years until he gave up. My calling was stronger than his desires.”
To say that Reyes is tenacious would be an understatement. He has only recently released his eponymous debut album, after 60-odd years of playing professionally. Pepesito Reyes (Narada World) verifies not only his life’s calling, but also Cuba’s innate ability to produce amazing ivory tinklers. But Reyes’ sound and touch quickly distinguish him from other masters like Bebo and Chucho Valdes, or Ruben Gonzalez. (“We went to school together,” Reyes jokes. “Ruben was going to study medicine and I was going to be an engineer, but all we ever did was sit around and play music.”). Whereas the father and son Valdes team is steeped in American jazz, and Gonzalez remains closer to the Buena Vista Social Club vibe, Reyes synthesizes his life’s experiences without losing sight of his true musical love, Cuban traditional music.
In fact, his style is deeply rooted in both jazz dynamics and rootsy fervor: While his right hand embellishes the melody with frills, runs and tonal shadings, his left underscores it all with Cuba’s rich melodic and rhythmic underpinnings. “The other day someone said I played jazz,” he says, his tone rising in indignation. “I told them that, no, I don’t like jazz, I like Cuban music. Above all, danzon, bolero–which, modesty apart, I play well–and son, which is where I improvise. Nowadays, I only play American music when I have to.”